One of the simplest money-saving things I can recommend for road trips with kids is to plan picnics for meals. A picnic is always a nice mini-adventure in the middle of longer journeys where we have an idea of what the bigger destinations will be but the picnic spots are always a bit of luck and adventure. We have picnicked under dinosaurs in a city park out west, with tremendous mountain views just outside of a small town, and in the van during thundering rainstorms.
To begin, think about what your kids normally eat for lunch on a weekend day at your home. If your kids are like ours, it’s peanut butter sandwiches, cold cuts and crackers, and other somewhat simple (picnic-friendly) foods like these.
These kinds of lunches are easy to have while you’re driving with just a little bit of planning. What you need is basically:
Something to eat on (plates, napkins, etc)
A place to eat
Food to eat
Something to eat on
One of our biggest lessons learned for road trips was that having a few simple things on hand goes a long way. For example, we have a picnic kit that includes a set of 4 dinner plates, 4 small plates, 4 bowls, and some heavy-duty plastic utensils that are now our travel eating items that stay in the bag all year so they’re always ready to go. The utensils go in a special plastic zip-up bag. Another small thing that made a big difference was having a tablecloth. The RVing friends who gave us this one said it was important, but I never would have bought one on my own. It takes care of so much and makes eating on a picnic table seem somehow nicer, as well as protecting your kiddos from a random splinter that might be around.
A place to eat
We’ve found that once you start looking for picnic tables, you can find them in all sorts of places. The most common ones are at neighborhood parks and rest areas. We’ve even found them outside of gas stations, truck stops, outlet malls, and more.
On our drive through Apalachicola, it was getting to be time for us to eat. A quick look at the map of the town showed us two green spaces that were worth checking out (screenshot from Waze below for reference). A drive by Lafayette park revealed a lovely park, but limited seating options so we drove over to Battery Park which by its size seemed like a more promising candidate to begin with.
Turned out that was the right call. Not only was there a nice neighborhood park, but there were many picnic tables to choose from. A few near the docks, a few near a stage and fish cleaning table (pro tip – fish cleaning areas don’t have the best smells for sitting down to eat lunch), and a few over near the playground which is always a bonus when driving with kids.
Our travel ice chest that mainly carries food and condiments. We tuck this behind the center console of the van in the 2nd row, between our two kids’ seats. The green bag carries the plates, utensils, and tablecloth along with paper towels, bread, and other dry needs (like triscuits or snap pea crisps in today’s example).
Picnic Lunch Cost Breakdown:
$0.32 – 2 slices Nature’s Own 100% Whole Wheat bread
$1.25 – ½ bag Harvest Snaps Green Pea Snack Crisps
$5.99 – 4x2oz servings of Hillshire Farm thin-sliced lunchmeat (you can do much better than this price for lunchmeat, but it was a convenient grab & go, and the plastic containers are great for reusing on the road)
$1.80 – 3×9 Triscuits (the kids love to count out 9 Triscuits for those who are having them for some reason. (.60/serving)
$1.20 – 3×3 cracker cuts cheese slices. (40/serving)
$10.56 – Total for lunch
Finding Picnic Spots in advance
If you’re planning your routes and picnic spots further in advance, you have a few other great tools at your disposal.
In Furkot, you can use the “Find” tool on the right-hand side, select the mountain with clouds on the top row for “parks and natural features” and then click on the first icon in the second row to display “parks”. In this view, you can get some quick info, as well as potential links to other websites that could have more details. Many Furkot location links are to Foursquare so they don’t often have much information, but they can be a great starting point. If I’ve identified Battery Park in Apalachicola as a place I want to stop, a quick google search brings me to a Tripadvisor review that confirms what I’m looking for.
Another option is to use Google Maps, search for the town, and then use the ‘nearby’ feature to search for items near there. I did a search for ‘parks’ and got the image below. Similar details as others, but a different view of things as well as some good information about places I might want to avoid. Finding a playground with a splash pad isn’t going to make me getting the kids out of that park any easier, or make them any more comfortable during the next stretch of our drive if they’re in wet clothes.
Soon to come: a post with more detail on easy travel lunch ideas that will cover the actual food part.
What are your favorite travel lunches? Share in the comments and we’ll build more together!